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Let's go to the tape: New book relives invention of instant replay
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Columnist

Tony Verna, a Philadelphia native, was just 29 when he lauched the first instant replay during the 64th annual Army-Navy football game in 1963.

 

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Published: 12/4/2008 3:15 PM | Updated: 12/4/2008 6:16 PM

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Far from being a day of infamy, Dec. 7 should be a day celebrated by all sports fans - as TV producer-director Tony Verna states in his recently released book, "Instant Replay: The Day That Changed Sports Forever."

Yes, it was a mere 45 years ago Sunday that Verna executed the first instant replay during a sporting event, rerunning a late touchdown in the 1963 Army-Navy football game on CBS, as a near-breathless play-by-play man Lindsey Nelson warned viewers, "This is not live! Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again."

In the words of Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writer Joe Starkey, it was "the day televised football changed forever," and for once the hyperbole fits.

First things first, though, back here in the present. "Instant Replay," which lists for $17 from Creative Book Publishers International, isn't a great book. Like many a memoir from a TV pioneer - especially one "behind the scenes" - it's a little too full of the author and his accomplishments.

The 45th anniversary of instant reply is what we call the news peg in the mainstream media, but Verna uses it as a springboard to cover his entire career, from CBS to going independent and global, producing the worldwide charity concert "Live Aid" and Pope John Paul II's "Prayer for World Peace" in the '80s.

Yet if it's not exactly graceful in its writing style, it is engaging and straightforward, full of Verna's apparently upfront and confrontational personality and lightly peppered with profanity. And the story behind the breakthrough in instant replay deserves to be retold.

Verna right away rejects the commonly held notion that ABC's Roone Arledge invented instant replay, although he backs into it by admitting that Arledge was using slow-motion studio replays for halftime highlights before 1963.

The trick, where Verna was concerned, was being the first to figure a way to bring the 1,200-pound Ampex VTR-1000, a massive machine run, like the TVs of the era, on vacuum tubes and described as being "the size of big deep freezers," to a game and make it work on site.

The idea - like that of the world being round - was there before the acknowledged breakthrough, but the real spark of genius, as Verna describes it, wasn't what Arledge was doing, but how the Lee Harvey Oswald assassination by Jack Ruby was covered, a few weeks earlier on Nov. 24, 1963.

If Ruby could shoot Oswald on camera at 11:21 a.m., and NBC could have it up on the air by 11:30, why couldn't you do the same only faster with something far more important, like a football touchdown?

Verna was also motivated by personal experience, having seen times while producing a Philadelphia Eagles game in the truck when wide receiver Tommy McDonald had failed to connect with quarterback Norm Van Brocklin.

"But the viewers didn't see why the pass wasn't caught," Verna writes. "I wanted to show them what I had seen on another monitor, that McDonald had been tripped leaving the line of scrimmage."

In other words, Verna wasn't just working on instant replay, he was working toward the development of isolated replay in a conscious attempt to render the complexities of football more immediate and understandable to the viewer at home.

As future Dallas Cowboy general manager Tex Schramm said at the time, "My boy, what you have done here will have such far-reaching implications we can't begin to imagine them today."

We can in the present, however. Instant replay and ISO helped make football the game it is today. It altered not just the viewer's experience, but the game strategy, in how the game could be dissected, altered and improved.

Today's ultra-complex football is unthinkable without replay and ISO. And of course it had a similar impact in sports ranging from baseball to the Olympics.

So thank you, Tony Verna, for instant replay if not "Instant Replay." It was indeed "the day that changed sports forever," and if it takes the book to remind us all of that, more power to it and to you.

In the air

Remotely interesting: With the Bears' noon Sunday game against the AFC Jacksonville Jaguars airing on CBS, WBBM Channel 2 will follow it with a postgame show with host Ryan Baker and former Bear James "Big Cat" Williams. Megan Mawicke and Howard Sudberry will contribute locker-room interviews. ... The Cubs have extended Len Kasper's contract as TV play-by-play man through 2011.

Comcast SportsNet Chicago reporter Josh Mora has written a children's book, "The Magic Uniform," illustrated by his wife, Allison, and the Blackhawks are selling it as an official team publication for $15 at home games and their HawkQuarters store, 330 N. Michigan Ave., as well as their Web site. Some Borders are also carrying it. The story concerns a boy who believes wearing his favorite uniform causes his team to win. The Hawks have also released the sharp new "One Goal: Chicago's Resurgent Blackhawks," $15 from Triumph Books. Mixing the team's tradition with the present, it seems a marketing device timed with the upcoming Winter Classic at Wrigley Field, but it also includes independent-minded pieces by writers like the Herald's own Tim Sassone, and there's no denying it looks great and would make a fine holiday gift for anyone committed to the Indian.

End of the dial: The Baseball Hall of Fame announces this year's Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasters on Tuesday, but no Chicago announcers are among the 10 finalists.

WGN 720-AM Cub color man Ron Santo finds out Monday if he'll be inducted into the Hall of Fame proper by the Veterans Committee.